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Chile braces for March protests as Pinera appeals for peace

SANTIAGO, Feb 24 (Reuters) - President Sebastian Pinera called on Chileans on Monday to help the country “live in peace” ahead of an anticipated fresh outbreak of protests in March.

Pinera said stability was needed to allow for an effective public vote on a new constitution in April and to be able to push through reforms to pension, salaries and health services.

“What the country urgently needs is a great national agreement against violence and in defense of democracy,” Pinera told journalists after a cabinet meeting at the Moneda presidential palace.

March is traditionally a month that brings protests in Chile as people return from the Southern Hemisphere summer holiday and mark the anniversaries of victims of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship, and international women’s day.

The results of educational government loan and grant applications can also spark unrest.

Protests broke out in Chile in October and raged until mid-December over the high cost of living and entrenched inequality. Associated violence saw metro stations burned, shops looted and set on fire, and a fierce response from police.

At least 31 people died, thousands were injured and tens of thousands arrested.

Protests have been muted in the capital in the new year but resumed with intensity in regional cities including Valparaiso and Antofagasta.

On Friday, the Santiago square which was the focal point of last year’s protests saw another large demonstration.

On Sunday, an annual music festival in Vina del Mar headlined by Ricky Martin, saw police clash with hooded protesters outside the heavily fortified event. Cars were torched and the windows of a well-known hotel were smashed.

A poll by Cadem poll published last week showed that 56% of respondents supported the continuation of protests, compared to 72% in October. 13% said they approved of Pinera’s leadership, compared to 9% at the start of the month.

Another Cadem poll showed that 85% of business leaders felt Chile was moving in the “wrong direction”, and 99% believed March would bring further polarization. Local media reports suggest businesses are investing heavily in security guards and iron gates to protect their premises.

“Public discontent remains considerable despite the government’s announcements of higher public spending and the process to rewrite the constitution, while distrust of the political class is widespread,” analysts Eurasia Group said in a note. (Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Aislinn Laing Editing by Alistair Bell)

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